December 5, 2020

iMonk Classic: Out of Business with God

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer

“What this says to you and me who have to live with the business of trying to confess our sins is that confession is not a pre-condition of forgiveness. It’s something that you do after you know you have been forgiven. Confession is not something you do in order to get forgiveness. It’s something you do in order to celebrate the forgiveness you got for nothing. Nobody [nobody] can earn forgiveness.”

-Robert Capon, “The Father Who Lost Two Sons”

I’m Throwing Out the Vending Machine Gospel

Exactly what do I mean?

I am setting out to do something that is unlikely to be extremely popular. I am writing a theologically tentative essay about a word most of my readers have never heard and an issue I’ve only heard one other person discuss. Why this word would inspire serious theologizing on my part, and require an essay to explain, will only be evident to those who expend the effort to read and think along with me. (And as I said, this is a very tentative project.) While it isn’t my goal to persuade, I believe that some segment of my readership will find this essay a further step along a road they’ve been traveling for some time.

The word is “transactionalism.”

Transactionalism—I no longer believe in it, which won’t bother anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about. Fair enough. The dictionary defines a “transaction” as “a communicative action or activity involving two parties or things that reciprocally affect or influence each other.” Transactionalism would be a belief system that involves a transaction—actions on our part and results—between God and a human being. All based on reciprocal actions.

Put that way, I hope you will recognize that the typical evangelical is awash in a sea of transactional language, images, explanations, sermons, and songs. Evangelicalism is often one huge system for “getting God to do stuff.” I’m out of that business with God, because I don’t think God was ever in that business.

In the simplest terms, transactionalism is the belief that in response to some action on my part, God responds to me and something happens that was not the case before my action. Placed in the context of basic Christian belief, I am saying that I no longer believe that God responds, in a transactional fashion, to actions on my part, but relates to me totally according to His own good pleasure in the Lordship and mediation of Jesus.

This does not mean that I do not recognize the place of transactional language. Yes, the Bible frequently uses such language. A certain amount of transactional language is unavoidable, particularly in talking about prayer, covenants, sacrifices or in discussing Biblical narratives. But despite this, I believe that if we were to see all of God’s dealings with human beings from the divine point of view, we would not see transactionalism, but instead see God’s own gracious outworkings of unprompted, sovereign salvation in Jesus.

What must I do to be saved?
The New Testament uses three commands to describe what seems to be “our side” of the transaction: repent, believe, and confess. The many variations and synonyms don’t need to be listed. Even if we include the diversity of Christian beliefs about the necessity of baptism, the majority of Christians would agree that repentance, faith and some form of confession are repeatedly urged and illustrated by the New Testament writers.

Most evangelical Christians would agree that these make up “our part” in a transaction with God called “being saved.” We repent from sin, we believe in Jesus and the Gospel message, then we demonstrate the reality of that faith through some form of confession. That confession is usually understood by evangelicals to be a public invitation or altar call, baptism and/or the public confession that precedes church membership. In response, God gives us salvation by removing our sin and crediting us with the righteousness of Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit,  the blessings of salvation become ours. Our entire existence is then infused with the “new creation” that is “in Christ.”

But is this the best way to think of the Christian message? I have serious questions about whether transactionalism confuses the language of scripture with the realities of God, and in the process, leads to a religion of “doing business” with a God who is manipulated. Is transactionalism the source of the trivialization of God and the elevation of man that plagues evangelicalism? I believe so.

Transactional approaches are common in many areas of the Christian life. If we confess our sins, God forgives them. If we have faith when praying, our prayers will be answered. If we pray in large numbers, God will send revival or perform miracles. If we fully surrender, greater power will come into our lives. Of course, we confess, believe and repent….and God responds. Right? Transactionalism tells Christians that they are constantly in a situation where what they do will determine what God does, and what God does is his side of a transaction that starts with—and depends upon—us.

It’s not hard to think in these terms, especially if you are an American. Transactionalism is deeply ingrained in us from virtually all of our human relationships and experiences.  I probably sound well off the farm to say I question whether this is really the way God operates. Some may say I am advocating a kind of hyper-Calvinistic fatalism where our choices are so predetermined they are meaningless. I can assure you that is far from my position. I believe our choices are real and meaningful. In fact, I tend to believe our freedom is far more dynamic than most of my reformed friends. But I do not believe the Gospel is a set of directions for transactions between God and people. I believe the Gospel is revelation of who God is, and the announcement of the acceptance that comes from God in His Son, Jesus.

An illustration
One of the most frequent transactional promises heard in Christianity is the invitation to make Jesus your personal savior. Christ stands and knocks. We open the door, let him in, and allow him to change us.

I believe this misrepresents the New Testament message. N.T. Wright uses an illustration that I have found helpful, though I will use my own version.

It is the time of the Roman empire, and a small village on the outskirts of an outlying Asian province has received a messenger from the capital. The village elders have gathered the whole city to hear the message from the outside world. After the formal greetings, the messenger stands and speaks.

“The new emperor, Tiberius Caesar, sends you greetings. Our divine emperor extends his benevolent rule to this village, and proclaims his power and wisdom to all your citizens. In the future, taxes and tribute from you will be brought to Tiberius. Those who submit to his rule can expect peace and justice. Those who rebel against him will find justice and punishment. Tiberias Caesar is Lord!”

Is this a description of a transaction between the citizens of the city and the new emperor? The language of the messenger at first appears to be transactional, as much of the language of the New Testament appears to describe a “give and get” arrangement between God and the Christian. But is that really what’s going on?

What we actually have here is an announcement of a new order. The villagers are being informed of the new order and realities of that order. Their acceptance or rejection of the announcement is secondary to the reality of whether their behavior now conforms to the new order. Tiberias isn’t opening a business and looking for customers. He’s informing his subjects of what the future will be like.

Tiberias is Lord. “Accepting” him as Lord isn’t a transaction; it’s an embracing of reality. Sending taxes to Tiberias may bring Roman protection, but no one is “buying” the friendship of the emperor. They are wisely sending on to Tiberias what already belongs to him. If a new road appears in the city, it is not a transaction with Tiberias that brought the road; it is the “will” of Tiberias that brings roads and blessings; war and peace.

Is “transaction” the word that best applies here? Or is it recognition? The messenger is proclaiming the advent of a new order and the wise benefits of recognizing that order. While his language may sound transactional, the realities of the situation make it obvious that something entirely different has arrived.

Various persons in the city may “repent,” “confess” and “believe” in the new order, but does anything new happen at those points? Or do these responses simply indicate a rearranging and recalibrating of the person’s life in line with the new order and reality of Tiberias?

This illustration may seen silly, but I believe it holds much of the truth that the New Testament is proclaiming, particularly in the fully matured theology of the later epistles and the Gospel of John. In the Gospels, the kingdom of God isn’t coming. It is here, now, being revealed. It is present, but we have not come to terms with it. Jesus’ incarnation plants a sign of the kingdom’s presence in the midst of human history. His journey to earth doesn’t begin the kingdom, or invite us to a transactional relationship with God. Jesus demonstrates that God’s reality, compassion and Lordship are always present.

Repentance, faith and confession are ways we recognize and embrace this kingdom and this king. We do not “bring” the kingdom; we surrender to it and embrace its ever present power.

I also believe it the illustration points out the relationship between the Christian and the kingdom of God. Are verses like Colossians 1:13-14 describing the results of a transaction, or do they describe the free and gracious action of God, to which we respond?

While I like Wright’s illustration very much, I feel it’s important to add a particularly Christian nuance. If the New Testament proclamation is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then we must talk about “What kind of King is Jesus? How does he differ from other kings and Lords?” The answer to that question is something like this- and it is very important: Jesus is a King who pardons rebels, by taking the rebellion and its consequences upon himself.

In other words, the relationship of rebellious subjects to a sovereign does add the potential of a needed transaction of forgiveness. In the Gospel, we are presented with the clear truth that Jesus preemptively forgives rebels through his own reconciliation and mediation. The “acceptance” of that forgiveness is the closest we come to a transaction in the Gospel.

The Meaning of a “Sacrament”
Debates about “transactionalism” have often been debates about the atonement. The Bible places the death of Jesus as the apex of a scriptural thread of sacrificial theology. Sacrifice is plainly transactional. No one can deny that, and I wouldn’t try. But is the death of Jesus a transaction, or is it a sacrament that allows us to think about the unthinkable and unknowable in a way that can be understood humanly and temporally?

Classical theologians argued about who received the “payoff” from Christ’s death on our behalf. Satan? The Father? When did the payment go into effect? Was the transaction between members of the Godhead, or does human faith and/or obedience effect the transaction? Did the atonement’s benefits extend to those who lived before it happened? Transactional questions are endless, leaving some persons weary and wondering, “Is this what the death of Jesus is all about? How many sins can be forgiven by how much blood? The calculation of worth?”

Such debates assume a temporal and transactional understanding of the atonement. They are built on the idea that, at some point in time, our reconciliation in Christ did not exist, but was in the future. Some Christians writers in the early history of the church, giving up the temporal aspect of the atonement, wondered if the “transactional” language of sacrifice was obscuring eternal truths about God. Was the death of Jesus a temporal sacrifice, and therefore a transaction, or was it something else? If God were dealing with another race in another galaxy, would the death of Jesus be the same, for the same reasons? Or could it be different because, in actuality, that death is a sacrament, and not a transaction at all.

Theologian Robert Capon has put forward an alternative to traditional ways of looking at the atonement, one that moves beyond the transactional language by introducing another familiar concept from Christian theology: The death of Jesus as a sacrament of God and the Gospel. This controversial proposal will upset some readers, but it has persuaded me to rethink not only the death of Jesus, but the reality of God as presented in Christ

By sacrament, Capon means a sign of reality. A sign that points to, and allows understanding of reality. The sacrament is not the totality of the reality, but participates in the reality. When a person interacts with a sacrament, he or she participates in the reality on the “other side” of the sacramental window.

Most Christians associate Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with sacraments. Capon says these are true sacraments of Christ. Christ is really present in these signs, but those participating in the sacrament are not “transacting business” with God, but are experiencing the grace of God that is always present for everyone. Those with faith perceive the meaning of a sacrament, and see the reality it presents, but the power of a sacrament is always true, no matter what the circumstance.

The “always present” aspect of the sacrament is the most controversial. Capon is saying that God’s forgiving grace is always present in Christ, always and for everyone who recognizes and believes it. Grace does not “appear” in the sacraments or in preaching and then vanish until the next transaction.

This sacramental understanding goes beyond just those signs mentioned in traditional theology. For Capon, all of reality, all of life is sacramental. The grace of God is part and parcel of creation, according to Capon, because Christ is always mediating the grace of God to His creation. We cannot escape the mediating love of God in Jesus unless we simply ignore it. Even then, Capon muses controversially, our escape from grace may prove to be futile.

Capon suggests that the cross, in fact the incarnation itself, are sacraments through which we see and experience the ever-present grace of God. Creation is a sacrament. All human life and experience is a sacrament. Jesus is the apex of sacramentalism. Once a Christian begins to think sacramentally, there is, in reality, no separation between existence and the love of God.

In this rejection of transactional language, Capon is not belittling the cross, but magnifying it as the epitome of the incarnational sacrament. While Capon does not believe a “transaction” occurred, he does believe the sacrificial- and transactional- imagery of the cross powerfully presents the grace of God in Christ, though it does not exhaust or limit that grace simply to the death of Jesus. Christ himself- God the Son- is the eternal sacrament and the very substance of the grace God extends to us in the Gospel.

I’m quite drawn to this as one who has grown weary of the debate between “limited” and “universal” atonement. Was the atonement effectual for a predetermned number? Or potentially for all, actually for none? Capon says the death of Jesus shows that God, in Christ, reconciles the world, i.e. creation, to himself. At his cost; in Chirst, effectually and graciously. Lift that up and believe it.

By suggesting that the atonement is not a temporal transaction, and that we do not conduct transactions with God as much as we come to realize what God gives us in the Gospel, Capon has helped me greatly. In the “altar call” of my evangelical Baptist tradition, transactions with God were proclaimed right and left, and sincere seekers believed that participation in the “sacrament” of coming to the front of church to pray would move God to do what we would not do otherwise. I now believe this is a profound misunderstanding of the God of the Bible, dishonoring the greatness of the Gospel of Jesus victorious, ever-present love for me.

I now believe the “Gospel” has been there since before the foundation of the world. It is the “eternal Gospel.” It is the Gospel of the Son who eternally offers himself up to God as our mediator. The cross of Jesus is the great “window” through which we see this reality, but all of Christ’s incarnation, and all of the church’s sacraments that point to him are also “windows” through which we see the eternal, unchanging kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The difference it makes
Let’s summarize what I’ve covered so far.

  • I’m questioning whether Christianity is a religion of transactions with God, particularly transactions where our actions are the primary reason God acts or responds.
  • I believe the Gospel doesn’t proclaim a transactional “contract,” but a new order where the sovereignty of God expressed through the Lordship of Christ is the ultimate reality of the universe.
  • The incarnation and death of Jesus are sacraments in which we see and experience the reconciling forgiveness and mercy of God for a fallen creation, and particularly for sinners. Reality itself is sacramental, as is the focused life and worship of the church. These sacraments proclaim to us the eternal, gracious mediation of Jesus.

Before I talk about some of the helpful applications of this theology, I want to acknowledge the obvious: the Bible is written in covenantal language which is generously transactional. Because the Bible is a historic, temporal narrative written in a mixture of points of view- some divine, some human- transactional language is not surprising.

What I want to suggest is that the nature of the story in scripture should not cause us to think of God in temporally bounded ways. It is this approach that results in an Openness theology with a limited God. Scripture tells its story in order to bring us to the Final Word spoken in Jesus Christ. The historical narratives and theological constructs leading up to Jesus must be submitted to the Lordship and mediation of Jesus. Covenantal language, particularly, needs to be seen as a way of understanding God and the Gospel, but should not be pressed beyond that use.

For example, in Hebrews 9, Jesus is pictured as bringing a sacrifice into a heavenly holy place. Is this a literal, temporal, transaction in heaven? Or is it using the Biblical story to tell us that Christ, in his person and work as mediator, eternally offers himself as our redemption? Is it an illustration of a transaction, or is it a story communicating the nature of God and the Gospel?

Applying a tentative theological proposition is risky business, but I want to to take note of some important ways this changes Christianity for me. In the context of a personal faith crisis, these applications were very helpful to me. If you’ve stuck with me so far, I hope this will stimulate further consideration on your part.

Abandoning transactional Christianity eliminates all forms of religious manipulation. The primary difference between Christianity and other religions should be the rejection of all manipulation of God through human efforts. Christianity is inconsistently full of formal and popular ways of “getting God’s attention” and prompting the divine to act on our behalf.

For millions of people, church going is a transaction. Evangelical demonstrations of prayer and emotion are often responses to admonitions to conduct transactions with God. Christians have a thousand plans to be blessed, empowered, prospered and healed, all depending on various ways to “move God’s hand.”

I would urge the rejection of these manipulations as less than Christian. Particularly, I would urge caution in using the Bible in a transactional manner, writing “checks” of prayer and obedience that God must cash into blessings. The God of the Bible who has revealed himself in Jesus is not a vending machine. The sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ encourage us to prayer, dependence on God and grateful worship, not into hand-wringing and constant attempts to get God’s attention to work on our behalf.

I won’t belabor the fact that my view of the sacraments excludes any kind of transaction. The sacraments are, by design, windows, signs, seals and participations in Christ and his benefits. Language that goes beyond this seems to be in a cul-de-sac of irrelevance. Christ is as close to us as it is possible to be. The sacraments do not bring him to us, but they open our eyes and lives to his presence and power. His forgiveness and his kingdom are here, now.

Abandoning transactionalism solves many problems in evangelism, most notably the evangelical fascination with getting “decisions.” In modern evangelical evangelism, the Gospel is portrayed as a transaction with God, a bargain that must be struck by making a “decision for Christ.” In fact, evangelism is the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life, most clearly seen in the Gospel of the Cross.

Certainly,we must make a decision. We must make many, many decisions as a result of the fact that Jesus is Lord. We constantly respond to the reality that Jesus is the center of reality and the Gospel is the key to existence. But one decision on our part does not involve us in a transaction that creates this new reality. The “new creation” IS THE TRUTH. Those who live “in Christ” live in this truth.

It is my observation that the obsession with decisions in the form of a one-time transactions is largely responsible for vast numbers of professing Christians who ignore the reality of Christ. Believing that a prayer caused their name to be written in the book of life, they live with no reference to Jesus. This brings about more sermons on “total surrender” and overtures to legalism. I’ve listened to pastors agonize over the lack of discipleship in their converts, and wondered “Does anyone ever consider that the focus on decisions is bound to produce this dilemma?”

Our calling is to make disciples who see that every day, every decision, every choice is about Jesus because Jesus is Lord and this is his universe. We were made in the image of our Lord and God. The Sacraments- and all of life- remind us of this. The Bible tells us this story. All of history is hurdling towards the revelation of the Lordship of Christ. We plead with our culture…be reconciled to God, because we are reconciled in Christ. Confess Jesus is Lord, because Jesus is Lord.

Which brings us to the church…

The church bears witness to Jesus, his present kingdom and his Gospel. Not to transactions. The business of the church is not numerical growth, or cultural militancy. The church is not the custodians of a system of forgiveness. The church’s purpose is mission, proclamation and witness. The church is a movement, an extension of the present kingdom of the Lord Christ into the present world.

The form of the church should be consistent with the kingdom of God, and be constantly centered on the Lordship of Jesus. Proclamation, worship, relationships, ministry and compassion should all be sacramental: providing a window through which the world can see and participate in the life of the kingdom of Jesus. The church should not offer to broker transactions between persons and God. The church is not the mediator. The church lives in a new order. The church is the “house of the Lord,” inviting the world to look, see, listen and hear the kingdom of Jesus.

This is why we must reject transactionalism. The church isn’t offering fifty ways to access God and solve problems. The church isn’t a business operation or a system for getting right with the almighty before death. There is no biblical or reasonable basis for the church proclaiming or offering ANYTHING except the kingdom of the Lord Jesus. The sacraments, worship, scripture and proclamation should be central in a Jesus-centered church. Practical ministries, which have a place in the church’s mission, exist sacramentally, not transactionally. “Come and see the kingdom, hear the message of Jesus”, not “Come and have your problems solved by the church.”

A transactional church—which is what we have today—makes itself the mediator. The church is concerned with success in terms that people understand. Jesus does not offer success in worldly terms. When we say, “Join and be blessed,” it is a false Gospel. The church must simply say, “This is Jesus, this is God, this is truth and reality. Recognize, recalibrate, be embraced, believe and joyfully confess and worship.”

It is hard for evangelicals to imagine a church that is not centered on making converts, but on exalting Christ. Isn’t Christ most glorified when we make converts? Certainly it is a good thing when persons confess their faith in Christ, but only when evangelicals end their obsession with dispensing transactions with God and commit themselves to an uncompromising Christ-centered life will evangelism yield disciples whose lives embrace the Lordship of Christ and those confessions become reasons for joy. It would do the clergy of evangelicalism worlds of good to be told, once and for all, “You are not running a system of forgiveness. You are announcing the forgiveness that is already there through the grace of God.”

As I said at the beginning, this essay is a tentative exploration of some theological ideas that have become part of my own journey. I will admit to being tortured within fundamentalism and frustrated by Pentecostal/Charismatic evangelicalism to the point that transactionalism is easy to reject. I know I have much work to do, and I am open to correction, guidance and encouragement in the right way. But transactional theology has turned the community of Jesus into religous institutions dispensing everything from makeovers to salvation. Jesus turned over those tables, and so should we.

What I hope we can discover is a kind of Christian life that simply, plainly, clearly honors Jesus as Lord, rather than a life that is constantly seeking for God to play genie on our behalf. Kuyper said there is no area of life where Jesus does not assert his Lordship. If that is true, why isn’t it the passion of our lives? Why are Christians the most incomplete, frantic, “wretchedly urgent” and religiously imbalanced of human beings? Could it be that our conception of God is “What can he do for me? What must I do for him?” rather than “The God I worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have everything that I need. His love for me is the foundation of everything in existence. How can I honor him today?”


  1. I think this is my favorite imonk post of all time – It is helping re-shape my thinking about God/Kingdom/Salvation. One question? Does anyone see anything wrong with his/Capons View here at all theologically?

  2. Ummm… check out: for transactional paradigm.


    • Good link… Know anything about the author?

      • Yes, he’s a friend of mine who we go to church with. Glad that you enjoyed the article, I’ll let him know. It seemed to fit with the discussion. -steve

  3. What an excellent post and I don’t recall reading it the first time around. I love, “The God of the Bible who has revealed himself in Jesus is not a vending machine. The sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ encourage us to prayer, dependence on God and grateful worship, not into hand-wringing and constant attempts to get God’s attention to work on our behalf.”

    I also like what he says about Capon. One thing that sticks with me that Capon writes often is that Jesus is seen in the “least, last, lost and little.”

  4. Wow, first YEC Genesis and now Blood Atonement. It is not a good month for sacred cows at IM!

  5. So it really is just Arminian theology bundled into a package!

    Soli Fide

    It is by His doing that we are in Christ Jesus [1 Cor 1:31]

  6. Dreamingwings says

    Wow. This puts a lot of ideas I’ve been struggling to articulate, both to others and to myself, for the last several years into easy to understand form. Thank you so much for posting this today.

  7. I know this is a little off topic but since our interaction with God is through Covenants and our interaction with our spouse is described as a covenant, could a transactional view of salvation also have a side effect when we look at our view of how marriage should work?

    • Joel, I believe that everything–everything–is different in the Kingdom. Jesus redefined family, didn’t he? So I see that answer to your question as, Yes–but I don’t know how it looks. We are seeing thru a glass darkly, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to look…

    • This question fascinates me for me some reason, but I can’t quite tease it out. Do you have any further reflections on what the side effects would be?

      • I am hoping to write soon on the idea of the Kingdom view of family. Please pray that God gives me wisdom in this. I have been thinking on this for several years now…

      • One thought as I read the IM post was how many friends I have had that treat their money trasnactionally. Af friend who wanted a new guitar amp so bought his wife kitchen cabinets. If I understand a covenant relationship such as God has with us, it’s not defined as a 50-50% but a 100-100%.

        Transactional seems to allow for more of a 50-50% perspective.

  8. Transactionalism is classic revivalism. It sounds so much like Charles Finney. But it goes back to puritanism, because this is the same stuff that Walter Marshall was combating over three hundred years ago, that was leading people back then to despair.

    I think we need to try to rethink the atonement. The way we handle it ends in such a horrific theology. Could you tell someone from a broken home the story of a son who lets the father take his wrath out on him rather than us? It makes God sound like an abusive, drunken parent in a fit of rage. There must be something wrong here. Transactionalism sounds like our means to calm God’s temper.

    Another popular illustration of the atonement is the bridge operator, who chooses between rescuing his son trapped under the draw bridge or lowering it and crushing him to death before an approaching passenger train crashes into the river. Horrible, horrible stuff!!!

    I think it goes back to a Jesus-shaped Christianity. We know who God is through Jesus, period. Jesus is not the unfortunate son who steps in front of God’s wrath on our behalf; he is God who suffers and dies. When Saint John peered into the window of heaven upon the throne of God, he saw a lamb who was slain – not a Zeus-like figure hurling thunderbolts. The cross reveals deeply the nature of God. God at his weakest was able to accomplish more than we could imagine in our greatest strength or on our best day. We just don’t understand God, because his way of doing things is polar opposite to the way we do: strength versus weakness; suffering versus glory. As Luther stated in his Hidelberg Disputation regarding the theology of the cross, what is good we call evil; and what is evil we call good. There is truly no transaction that can take place, because we have nothing to offer, and nothing can add or subtract from what God has already accomplished through the cross.

    • Jonathan Blake says

      I’m personally am much more interested in Christus Victor where Christ mounts a rescue of humanity from the powers of darkness, hate and evil that enslave and consume us through his death at the hands of the said powers and with his resurrection he triumphs and breaks their power. Recapitulation also is interesting to me in how it states that Christ became like us so we could become like Him. With his life he undid and reversed the disobedient pattern set by the first Adam and as the second Adam established a new way of life and obedience to the Father.

      To tell you the truth the Anselmian idea of the atonement has worn me out and strikes me as grossly lacking. I don’t understand how it could’ve come to dominate western thought for so long. Let’s head east to Constantinople for some reconnection to our ancient roots! (Or at least read some Patristics)

      • Jonathan Blake says

        Didn’t mean to make it sound like I didn’t like this post by Michael because that couldn’t be further from the truth. Like Dana Ames says below this post resembles the much more ancient ideas and views of our faith that somehow got lost along the way.

        May we see the realities of God much more often as Michael is asking of us.

        Thank you Michael and Chaplain Mike for continuing to bless us.

      • “Let’s head east to Constantinople for some reconnection to our ancient roots! (Or at least read some Patristics)”

        I agree, Jonathan. I can understand, though, where people come up with the Blood Atonement thing, because there is much that the apostle Paul and others refer to that make it appear that this is what God did. So there may be an aspect of that “theory” that is correct. But to focus on it to the exclusion of the Christus Victor type of understanding and recapitulation is wrong, in my humble opinion.

  9. QUOTE: “Why are Christians the most incomplete, frantic, “wretchedly urgent” and religiously imbalanced of human beings? Could it be that our conception of God is “What can he do for me?”

    I think that is exactly right. Any religion which has the primary intention of getting God to dance to our tunes can be politely described as paganism. We call God Lord, and then act as if we are the lords, and he is there to help facilitate our projects – suitably decked out in religious clothing of course:

    Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

    • You get it, Leslie!

      Put that way, it makes me ill to think of all the times I have tried to get God to dance to my tunes…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Any religion which has the primary intention of getting God to dance to our tunes can be politely described as paganism.

      I’d call it “Magick”. With the Aliester Crowley “K” ending.

      The basic idea of Magick is to force the supernatural to do what YOU want. Through spells, incantations, truenames, etc. Pay-as-you-go, I’m the one in charge.

      Remember Moses asking for God’s name in the Burning Bush scene? And that God only answers with titles and attributes, culminating in “I AM”?

      Moses was raised Egyptian; Egyptian magic was based around finding the TrueName of another and using that TrueName to control that other. Isis was one of the most powerful goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon because she knew the TrueNames of all the other gods and thus had power over them. Asking for a god’s name was tantamount to finding a handle to control that god through Magick. And God don’ play dat game.

  10. Perhaps there is an aspect of “transaction” involved though. In the law we have the concept of “third party beneficiary to a contract.” If I promise you that if you will mow my mother’s lawn I will give you a hundred dollars and you do it I owe you a hundred dollars and the law will enforce the promise. Mother had no part in this transaction but is the beneficiary of our agreement.

    Likewise if God the Father says to [transacts with?] God the Son, “if you will take on human form, live a sinless life, be crucified and die, I will raise you from the dead and exalt you to the highest place where every knee will bow and every tongue confess,and everyone who will trust in your perfect performance of our agreement will be a beneficiary of our “contract” [covenant?],” and God the Son performs perfectly, must we not all benefit by accepting and taking his word for what was wrought on our behalf and loose the benefit only by rejecting it?

    What can I add [contribute? offer? give?] except Yes!, Wow! Amen! Thank you! Count me in! I beleive! I take you at your word, Lord! Etc. Etc. Etc.

    • Dana Ames says

      Still too much distance between the Father and the Son… I’ve come to believe that all the Persons of the Trinity were involved. I’m not knowledgeable to articulate exactly how, and perhaps “exactly how” can’t be articulated in its fullness. But the Trinity all love and act together. I’m with dumb ox on this.


  11. This is so refreshing to read. I grew up in a pastor’s home and married a minister as well. My husband and I have taken a break from “traditional” ministry to get our bearings and re-focus. I have been particularly burned out by this type of transactional thinking in churches. It seems the church has become such a huge machine that is so far off from what it was intended to be.

    Everyone has a plan or formula to follow in order to “get God’s attention” these days. I have seen so many sad Christians who are disillusioned by the this type of teaching because they have tried relationship with God in this way and it doesn’t work. Then, they feel something is either wrong with God or them. It seems to work for those around them, so where is the problem? It is sad, and we should be ashamed of how far we have allowed this type of formulaic thinking to go within the church.

    Who are we to tell God what He should or should not be doing, especially based upon some human action. I am thankful that my relationship with God does not depend upon what I can or cannot bring to the table.

    Thank you for the re-post!

  12. Dana Ames says


    There is much here in common with Orthodoxy. Capon’s view of “sacrament” expressed here has echoes of the deep Participation of Orthodoxy.

    The Eastern church does not view the atonement as a transaction as Michael described it, but there is some sense of a ransom. The Eastern Fathers’ answer to the question “To whom was the ransom paid?” is: To humanity in our state of corruption and death. This, from an Orthodox prayer of preparation for Holy Communion: “I seek to receive the ransom of my errors and share uncondemned in Your life-giving, all-pure Mysteries…” never ceases to astonish me.

    And this as well, from one of my Orthodox friends: The Father is the source of humility.


    • Dana Ames says

      There is the matter of the very different definition of “salvation” in Orthodoxy, and also that Grace is not something created by God but is understood as God’s actual Holy Spirit work within us.

      God has done everything necessary and is indeed glorified, but I don’t think in the Eastern view it could be described as either monergism or Arminianism.

      Anyhow, Michael’s thoughts are intriguing.


  13. Buks van Ellewee says

    If I understand correctly, then this is standard Monorgist teaching – Paul Washer, John MacArthur, John Piper, et al. God initiates our salvation before the creation of the universe – our response to his saving grace is faith and repentance. God initiates and we respond without fail. Nothing from us – all from God. Not a transaction but a gift of grace. Soli Deo Gloria.

  14. Beelzebub's Grandson says

    (Struggling to remember Monty Python)

    “But I’m your king!”

    “Well *I* didn’t vote for you…”

  15. I just finished reading “Mere Churchianity” — and this post seems to strike at the central message of what Michael was trying to relate through his first and last book. Thanks, Mike, for digging up these treasures.
    The gospel as a proclaimation of the present-tense reality of Christ and His kingdom — what a novel idea! It’s truly strange how often in her history the church has lost sight of something so central and crucial to her original design and mission. The church so easily gets caught in that trap of trying to be dispensers, regulators, and even creators of that reality, when we were merely called to proclaim it and live in it.
    I think Jesus’s parables comparing His kingdom and message to a seed or seeds also reflect an essentially nontransactional relationship between God and man. Jesus has sown and continues to sow the seed of Himself in the soil of our human reality — and that sowing has and will continue to produce the intended crop, regardless of what we as the church do to help or hinder it. Soil doesn’t make transactions or deals with the seed that has been planted in it. All soil can do is either provide a fertile environment for that seed to grow and take root or not. Either way, the Jesus seed will always find some favorable soil, and His seed has a way of springing up in the most unlikely patches of human dirt.

    • “Soil doesn’t make transactions or deals with the seed that has been planted in it. All soil can do is either provide a fertile environment for that seed to grow and take root or not.”

      I like that analogy, RonP.

  16. Very provocative stuff! I like Capon and Michael’s exposure of the faulty aspects of transactional theology and lucid thoughts on the cross and kingdom as sacramental in nature.

    I do believe transactionalism, as Michael describes it, has been elevated in much of evangelicalism (at least) in such a way that it is more like magic. I think of Dallas Willard in the “Spirit of the Disciplines” where he criticizes much prayer today as transactional, or to use his word, “magical” vs. “talking with God about what we are doing together”. There is an element of being in relationship that is conversational, interactive, responsive and in some sense transactional. I would not say is a bad thing but a relational thing. Jesus is Savior and Lord but he also invites us to participate with him and his kingdom as friends and family with the blessed Trinity. This is sheer grace because we are neither needed or deserving.

  17. Thanks for posting this essay – I read this earlier & found it extremely helpful, but then I tried to find it again & could not remember what the exact title of this essay was. I see this view as the best understanding of God meaning of the cross. Especially understanding the idea that God does not change, he is only revealed more to humanity. I believe this is represented in Hebrews 1:1-3

    1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

    Jesus is the exact revelation & representation of God. God is love. peace

  18. This seems to be a closer view to Classic Arminianism: Gods Previniant Grace given “to all” before any action or choice on our part.

  19. this could EASILY have been the gist of Michael’s second book…so I’m a little miffed that this will never happen; this post is deep and question provoking, and my tiny brain is spinning…..wished I’d evolved a few more thousand years at least… 🙂

    I know you can’t get inside Michael’s head to answer quesitons, but feel free to add more Capon , Chap Mike, in order to flesh out some of these themes. thanks.

    Greg R

  20. Leslie Jebaraj says

    A refeshing read!

  21. Pastor M says

    Another transaction that we frequently hear involves claiming the promise of such-and-such Bible verse as God’s special promise to me. I have heard people do this with absolutely no reference to context and thus twist way out of shape what the Bible says. But, I have claimed the verse (often perceived as a promise to bless me), so God will come through for me, so they will say.

  22. tom nickell says

    I also resonate w/ much of what Capon and M. Spencer have to say. However, what I find alarming is a very determined refusal to acknowledge the covenantal language that is the warp/woof of scripture. Spencer gives a passing acknowledgement when he says, “Covenantal language, particularly, needs to be seen as a way of understanding God and the Gospel, but SHOULD NOT BE PRESSED BEYOND THAT USE.” This is serious. In treating the concept of covenant in such an off-handed way, he treats the very concept of the Fatherhood of God in an offhanded way. Where scripture commands, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God!” Capon/Spencer seem to invoke the 16th stanza of “We Are The World.” There is no acknowledgement of that major theme of scripture portrayed by the ongoing conflict between Satan’s seed and woman’s seed, Cain and Abel, wheat and tares, sheep and goats, children of God and children of the evil one. I wouldn’t comment on it except that I’m shocked that no one else is! If I could find 5 out of 100 Christians who could recognize the “New Covenant” and discuss the sigificance, I wouldn’t find this sort of post so disturbing. But I can’t. And the loss of the New Covenant to this generation of believers is deeply troubling.

  23. Did Michael Spencer coin the ‘God is not a vending machine’ phrase? I’ve read it here in the archives a few times, and it’s something I find myself sharing. I’m sure that’s because I used to believe he is.

  24. John From Down Under says

    I am enthralled by this proposition and find it so liberating from the modern evangelical baggage. As much as I would LOVE to ‘lock it in’ intellectually speaking, I still struggle with the nuances of God ‘responding’ to humanly initiated actions/behavior/faith; Ninevah’s repentance, Moses’ intercession (Ex 32:10-14), The Centurion in the gospels, Cornelius in the book of Acts, and other anecdotal evidence.

    Am I looking at it the wrong way?